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Leadership counts. But perhaps not as much as we might think.

Julian Barling, a professor of leadership at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, has defined seven distinct but interrelated characteristics that contribute to a productive, healthy and safe workplace: High-quality leadership, job autonomy, a sense of belonging, fairness, growth and development, meaningful work and safe work. “I have yet to see compelling evidence showing that leadership is any more effective than any of the other characteristics,” he writes in his research-heavy new book, Brave New Workplace.

He begins his excursion into those seven elements with leadership because somebody has to take the lead in grappling with those other important elements for things to come together effectively. Leadership has been defined and described in so many ways it can be head-spinning. The most research has been on transformational leadership, whose four hallmarks are behaving ethically, being inspirational, focusing on the future and developing employees.

They contribute to positive attitudes, better performance and well-being. But the impact is somewhat indirect. He notes that as an employee, “simply having a high-quality leader does not mean you wake up each morning and decide to do amazing work.”

Instead, the research shows that high-quality (or its opposite, poor) leadership changes how followers view themselves, their work and their relationship. Followers with positive views of themselves, their work and their leaders usually want to do amazing work and help the organization succeed.

A trigger seems to be self efficacy – an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviours necessary to achieve desired performance. As a leader, you are trying to help people believe they can succeed. High-quality leadership also builds trust and a willingness to share information. He points to a study of 102 hotels that found higher levels of empowering leadership were associated with employees being more willing to share information, which in turn improved financial performance. Another study he cites found that having access to a range of child-care benefits, such as on-site daycare, flexible work schedules and personal and family leave was associated with higher levels of employee commitment and retention.

If transformation leadership is such a good thing, can we have too much of it? Yes. People respond differently to inspirational leadership and it can be easy to overwhelm them. “The best of leadership is about moments, about whether you can do the right thing at the right time with the right person,” he writes. The studies suggest it’s the little things leaders do that can affect their followers deeply, among them the smallest expression of gratitude, a truly inspiring act.

George H.W. Bush, in his many high-level jobs including the American presidency, was known for sending people thank you notes if they did something out of the ordinary. When Douglas Conant was chief executive officer of Campbell Soup Co. he would spend an hour a day writing such notes to people across the company.

Of the six other components of a healthy, productive workplace Prof. Barling shines the spotlight on, the hardest for leaders is probably giving employees autonomy and job control. He stresses that this is not a choice between granting employees total control or nothing at all. Nuance is important. He served on Ontario’s Advisory Committee on Occupational Health and Safety in the 1980s, when granting employees the legislative right to stop work they deemed unsafe was under consideration. “What I learned was that employees are not asking for total control over their workplace. What they want is the right to exert appropriate control when necessary,” he says.

This control tends to arise in three areas: The methods or procedures used in their work; scheduling, such as when they do their work or even the sequence in which different tasks are undertaken; and decision-making, notably over the criteria by which their work is evaluated.

Studies show autonomy has a positive impact on attitudes to work, performance and well being. The reverse is also true. Low autonomy has been shown to have negative effects on organizational commitment, including when the often-praised lean production system is used; absenteeism is more likely to occur, hurting productivity. One study found as job control decreases angina and other heart ailments increase.

He notes that gig work has been touted as offering more individual autonomy, but research finds Uber and Lyft drivers feel controlled by algorithms and swamped by exhausting work schedules over which they lack control. He reports a positive impact when a U.K. circuit board manufacturer gave engineers 15 minutes on their own to fix production problems rather than having to immediately call supervisors, downtime decreased.

“The fact that managers limit employees’ access to job control, as well as do what they can to retain as much control for themselves, is ironic,” he says. More than ironic, it might signal a way to improve your leadership and your company. Think about how effective you are at promoting self-efficacy and granting appropriate autonomy.


  • To build a positive team culture, consultant David Burkus recommends recognizing the good behaviours you see.
  • One of the best recruiting sources, often overlooked, is top candidates in the past who just missed out or were picked but didn’t take the post. Recruiting specialist John Sullivan notes that often they will have finished second to an exceptional candidate, silver medallists well suited to working for you. He adds those in this talent pool are easier and cheaper to recruit because you have already rated them as top talent and sold them on the company during their past job search.
  • The tattoo on amateur golfer Sam Bennett’s left wrist captures the last words of his father: Don’t wait to do something. Productivity consultant Tanya Dalton says it reminds leaders to act but only when the time is right, and also not to be afraid to take calculated pauses when necessary.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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